Real Self Care is Harder Than It Looks

I’m a big advocate of self-care.

Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve not just not really known how to look after myself well — but I’ve been almost actively self-sabotaging and abusing myself.

So for me, learning how to apply self-care has been life-changing — but I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.

In simple terms, self-care is about actively looking after your self.

It’s about looking after your health, but more subtly, it’s also about looking after your needs, and it can be from any angle imaginable. Not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, energetically too — even financially.

Self-care is not just an indulgence (although that can be nice…. just sayin’).

I don’t even think that self-care is about relaxation — although relaxation is always self-care in my book.

And self-care is not selfish, by the way. Bystanders may judge it so — but it’s really not selfish. It’s empowering — and some find that threatening, particularly when their self-care is notably absent.

Self-care is also not about looking the other way. It’s not about burying our head in the sand, doing something nice for ourselves on the surface to feel better when things are crumbling away on the inside.

While there are times that applying some lipstick, getting your nails done, or having a candlelit bath might do the job — in the short term.

But real self-care is a long term maintenance protocol and a commitment to looking after your whole self — covering everything — your sleep, your nutrition, your exercise, your boundaries, your dreams, and yes, your credit rating too.

It’s not just about hot baths, and candles, and massages and facials. (Although, again, those things are nice — and important).

It’s not about copying other people’s life hacks and expecting them to work on you. There’s so much advice out there, and we blindly adopt it in the name of self-care. We assume that if we just do it too, it’ll work.

That our problems will just disappear.

That if we drink enough matcha lattes, use enough sulphate free shampoos and light enough vegan candles, that we will magically feel better — and be better people.

But self-care isn’t about doing what feels good necessarily — it’s about doing what’s healthy for you.

It’s often about saying no instead of saying yes.

Self Care became a buzz word — but it doesn’t mean that’s wrong.

While the concept is bandied about all over the place at the moment, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

I mean, we’re all fried. We’re notoriously more stressed than ever — one study showed that young adults spend more than six hours a day “stressed out.”

Six. Hours. A. Day.

Lighting a candle, having a bath and smudging the house is not a bad plan in terms of a tonic for our modern-day lives. It’s good to check out for a bit — or a self check-in.

But the deeper practice of self-care is about facing up to our selves, facing our realities, and being honest about the way that we live our lives — including what toll that might be taking.

That’s why it hurts. That’s why we need the self-care.

But that level of honesty can be brutal.

It’s not about what we might enjoy, or what is frivolous and might feel good in the moment.

At its core, self-care is about being able to and knowing that we can handle ourselves and our lives in a healthy way. According to clinical psychologist Agnes Wainman, self-care is “something that refuels us, rather than takes from us.”

The other self-care practices — the ones we’re more likely to see on Instagram — are ancillary to that. Yes, they are important. But they don’t come first.

We need to take care of the core self first.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as humans, we need to take care of certain needs, in a certain order.

At it’s most basic is our need is for physical survival, and this is our primary motivation. Once that is fulfilled, then we can move up through the hierarchy.

1. Physiological needs make up the first basic needs—biological requirements for human survival, e.g. air, food, drink, shelter, clothing, warmth, sex, sleep.

If these needs are not satisfied, the human body won’t function well. Maslow considered physiological needs the most important and that all other needs become secondary until these needs are met.

2. Safety needs come next — protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.

3. Love and belongingness needs — interpersonal relationships, social connection, and feelings of belonging, e.g. friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance, receiving and giving love.

4. Esteem needs — Maslow classified esteem needs into two categories: (1) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (2) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g., status).

5. Self-actualization needs lie at the top of the hierarchy. Self-actualization needs are about seeking personal growth, self-fulfilment, finding one’s purpose, or reaching one’s potential.

Nowhere in this hierarchy are candles or hot baths mentioned.

(I constantly refer back to these particular practices because I love them and I need them and I won’t give them up.)

But I’ve begun to learn that self-care is less about enjoyment and the nice things in life, and much more about really ensuring that those basic needs are met.

What’s the point of a sumptuous bath if, once we step out of the bath, all of our problems come rushing back to bite us? The bath was a temporary, albeit glorious relief. A much needed moment to switch off — but that is really no more than glorified escapism.

It’s wise not to mistake self-care for escapism.

Escapism can serve a purpose and can still be very nourishing when done healthily (where’s that bath now?)— but it can also mask the issue.

We know this — running away from our problems is never the answer.

The higher path, the harder path, is to examine what is really going on. Identifying which need is not being met — and then addressing that as best we can.

So if you are having sleepless nights worrying about money — rather than having a lie in, taking it easy at the weekend, or taking a nap, or buying a new handbag, perhaps the better thing might be to see a financial advisor. Self-care here is to start to get your finances in order.

If you’re wracked with anxiety, never having enough time and constantly juggling too many plates, self-care might not just involve a hot bath, a visit to the spa, or a coffee with friends now and again — it might be that you need to spend some time re-evaluating your lifestyle, your work life balance. Self-care here might be a journalling session or creating a vision board about how you could redesign your life to better suit your needs.

The trouble with self-care is that it can often be a sticking plaster — providing just a temporary relief. There’s nothing wrong with a crux now and again — we all just need to get by sometimes.

And as Donna quite rightfully tells Tom in Parks & Recreation, we alllllll need a Treat Yo’Self Day.

(Image credit: Parks & Rec / Universal Media Studios (UMS))

But the issue comes when we are oblivious to, or denying the underlying problem, and so any treatment we reward ourselves with is superficial. It does very little to address the problem or make sure that the basic need is met.

Ultimately, I do believe that self-care in any form is a good thing. A necessary thing.

But sometimes it’s about doing the tough stuff — the stuff we need most, and doing it with compassion.

Here are 5 great examples of “real” self-care that are actually pretty challenging.

  1. Creating (and maintaining) healthy boundaries — saying no when you want to.
  2. Knowing your limits — asking for help when you need it.
  3. Knowing your limits — and not exceeding them to maintain an appearance.
  4. Self-discipline — implementing a daily routine and sticking to it.
  5. Creating (and sticking to) a budget.

These are just a handful of examples — and these practices aren’t by any means easy. But if we ignore them, or don’t apply them — it’s easy to see why we end up so damn stressed and looking for the easy option to unwind.

It isn’t always easy though to take responsibility for all aspects of your self, and then to maintain and nurture them.

It does take practice, it does take effort, and it can take some pushing back in order to achieve or implement it — either from yourself or from others.

That’s why it can be hard — but it isn’t selfish.

It’s necessary.

Founder, feminist, entrepreneur, coffee + self care

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